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World Wetlands Day 2024: recognising the importance of wetlands for human well-being

By Stephen Grady, Natasha Hunt and Ness Amaral-Rogers

To celebrate World Wetlands Day 2024, we reflect on this year's theme of 'Wetlands and Human Wellbeing' and highlight some of our areas of work. 

Over 50 years ago, delegates from across the world came together for a conference in the small town of Ramsar, along the Caspian Sea in Iran. Their aim was to finalise the development of an international convention specifically related to the conservation of wetlands – The Convention on the Conservation of Wetlands of International Importance, or 'Ramsar Convention'.

It was on this day, 2 February 1971, that delegates from 18 countries signed the final text of this intergovernmental treaty. The Ramsar Convention is considered to be the first of the modern global environment treaties. Since 1971, almost 90% of member states of the United Nations have become 'contracting parties', 172 in total.

We celebrate World Wetlands Day on 2 of February every year across the world, recognised by the United Nations as an 'Official Awareness Day' since 2021.

Wetlands are vital for human survival and this year’s theme – 'Wetlands and Human Wellbeing' – aims to shed a light on the wide range of ecological, social, and economic benefits provided by these ecosystems. Wetlands are among the most biodiverse and productive ecosystems, they provide climate change mitigation and adaptation; resources such as food, freshwater supply and building materials; protection from extreme weather events; as well as supporting livelihoods.

Whilst wetlands are some of the most important habitats, they are also among the most threatened. About 35% of the world’s wetlands have disappeared since 1970 and the remainder are threatened by pollution, land-use change, climate change and invasive species, as well as other threats. JNCC works both in the UK, and at an international level (including with the UK Overseas Territories (UK OTs) and the Crown Dependencies (CDs)), by providing scientific and technical advice on wetland ecosystems.

 

JNCC and the Ramsar Convention

The Ramsar Convention entered into force in the UK in 1976 and Defra is the UK Government’s department responsible for engagement with the Convention at the international level. Defra, the devolved administrations and their respective Statutory Nature Conservation Bodies (SNCBs) are responsible for its implementation domestically.

JNCC provides scientific and technical advice to these bodies, and at the international level in relation to the Ramsar Convention (as well as to the relevant administration in the UK OTs and CDs), for example to support the designation process of Ramsar Sites.

Ramsar Sites are wetlands of international importance that have been designated under the site selection criteria of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands for containing representative, rare or unique wetland types or for their importance in conserving biological diversity.

The first UK Ramsar Sites were designated in 1976 and the UK's ratification also extends to a number of the UK OTs and CDs. There are 175 UK Ramsar Sites at present, 149 located in mainland UK and 26 in the UK OTs and CDs.

Loch Lomond in Scotland (pictured), Lindisfarne and the Ouse Washes in England, Lough Neagh and Lough Beg in Northern Ireland, and Cors Fochno and the Dyfi in Wales were among the first UK Ramsar wetlands.

JNCC also participates in delegations to national and international Ramsar meetings; assists UK Government with advocacy on the harmonisation of Ramsar procedures worldwide; and co-ordinates the production of the UK's national report to the triennial Conference of the Parties to Ramsar. Our International Advice Team has been supporting the UK OTs and CDs to update the information they hold on the importance of each of their designated Ramsar Sites, so that up-to-date information is available in the public domain and to support international assessment purposes on the status and trends of wetlands.

 

Disaster resilience

JNCC also works with the UK Overseas Territory Governments to understand the role and value of natural environments, including wetlands, for protecting humans and their livelihoods from natural hazards. Wetlands play a key role in building long-term resilience to these hazards in a changing climate for both nature and people.

The Overseas Territory Governments have an increasing need to understand the escalating risks to human lives and livelihoods posed by threats such as storm surges and inland flooding. JNCC works with Overseas Territory stakeholders to mitigate these risks through environmental management, supporting the conservation of key habitats to ensure their protective role is retained for adaptation to climate change. In particular, the work aims to provide the knowledge, practical tools, and skills to embed the role and value of the natural environment into policy decision making.

 

Understanding how wetlands recover from environmental pollution

As part of a 3-year Environmental Pollution Programme (EPP), JNCC is working with partners in South Africa on 10 projects to manage and mitigate pollution in terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems to benefit people and biodiversity, while addressing climate challenges.

This EPP project, being delivered by the Institute of Natural Resources in South Africa, was developed following an extreme agrochemical pollution event, which severely impacted the biodiversity of the uMhlanga riverine and estuarine environments (pictured). Understanding and documenting habitat recovery and restoration are often essential in aquatic habitats such as estuaries and wetlands subject to chronic and acute stressors. This project considers the utility of a range of environmental monitoring tools to understand recovery, with a focus on blue carbon storage as a potential indicator of system recovery.

Restoring and monitoring recovery of wetlands is critical to better understand provision of ecosystem goods and services, which provide important benefits for human well-being and survival. Climate regulation, water purification and carbon storage are some of the important biophysical services these ecosystems provide, while also providing cultural and recreational benefits. We hope the findings of this project help to better understand the recovery of these vital ecosystems and can be applied in other aquatic habitats facing pollution worldwide.

 

World Wetlands Day: Recommendations for Wetland Restoration

Wetlands are among the most biodiverse, dynamic and productive ecosystems in Europe, but also among the most threatened. To preserve this vital part of our natural life support system, there is an urgent need to protect the few healthy wetlands that remain and to significantly scale up wetland restoration across Europe.

JNCC is a member of the European Network of Nature Conservation Agencies (ENCA). The network enhances nature conservation in Europe and neighbouring countries by sharing and deploying its collective knowledge and experience. To provide guidance on wetland protection and restoration, the network has published the recommendation paper "Restoring Riverine and Coastal Wetlands in Europe – Scaling Up Action for Biodiversity and Climate".

These recommendations are aimed at actors from politics, science and practice at the interface of biodiversity and climate change. They address necessary changes for wetland conservation, the practical implementation of restoration measures, the communication and expansion of scientific research on the topic as well as better transdisciplinary cooperation between all involved actors.

More information on the ENCA wetland recommendations are available on the ENCA website

 

Image credits: Image 1 – Loch Lomond, courtesy of IStock.com/Mediterranean; Image 2 – the uMhlanga Estuary, South Africa (October 2023), courtesy of Natasha Hunt (JNCC).

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